WASHINGTON -- In a modest victory for labor groups, a rare measure that would have blocked new federal rules considered favorable to unions failed Tuesday in the Senate, with Republican lawmakers and business groups unable to bring Democrats on board.
The defeated measure was an unusual legislative strategy, known as a "resolution of disapproval." Pushed by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), it would have scuttled rules proposed last year by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that streamline the union election process, likely making it easier for workers to join unions and harder for businesses to convince them not to. Strongly opposed by business groups and many conservative lawmakers, the new rules are set to go into effect later this month.
Enzi's measure failed along party lines, 45 to 54.
In addition to facing a White House veto, Enzi's measure needed a majority of votes to move forward and was never expected to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate. Nonetheless, it served as another rebuke by Republicans of the federal labor board, an agency that it has pummeled for more than a year as overly friendly to unions under President Barack Obama. Unions said the new NLRB rules will make it harder for businesses to delay elections and union-bust, while businesses say the rules won't give them enough time to educate workers on unionization and will lead to "ambush elections."
For the GOP, Enzi's measure also had the added benefit of forcing some Democrats facing re-election to either buck their party or cast a vote against the interests of several powerful industry trade groups. Among the lobbies that flagged the measure as a "key vote" were the National Association of Manufacturers, the Associated General Contractors of America, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Restaurant Association, according to Enzi's speech on the House floor Tuesday.
The AFL-CIO labor federation applauded the Senate vote, calling the measure a "senseless and time-wasting" attack on workers.
"Politicians who care most about divisiveness and political payback were sent a clear message of disapproval today," Alison Omens, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, said in a statement. "A majority of Senators voted for working people to have a more fair election process that can help achieve economic security."
Enzi sparred Tuesday on the Senate floor with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a strong proponent of unions and a critic of Enzi's resolution. Calling the rules an "attack on small businesses," Enzi argued that the NLRB was overstepping its bounds and "stacking the odds against" employers.
"This is one of the most important votes we've had on labor issues this Congress," Enzi said. "We need to let the NLRB know that their duty is to be a referee ... Their job is not to tip the scale in favor of one party or another."
Harkin countered that the rules were commonsense and overdue, arguing that the long lead-time before union elections has given businesses too much time to stall or use union-busting techniques.
"These are very modest rules," Harkin said. "This is not anything overwhelming, but it is a step in the right direction to make sure that we level the playing field and don’t have these undue delays, where the management can intimidate" workers.
Among other streamlining measures, the election rules will define the amount of time parties can litigate before and after an election, allow for the electronic filing of election documents and defer litigation on voter eligibility until after an election. The NLRB declined to comment on Tuesday, but the previous board chairwoman, Wilma Liebman, explained last year that the rules are meant to modernize an outmoded system.
"One of the most important duties of the NLRB is conducting secret-ballot elections to determine whether employees want to be represented by a labor union," Liebman said. “Resolving representation questions quickly, fairly, and accurately has been an overriding goal of American labor law for more than 75 years."
CORRECTION:: This story initially reported that the measure needed 60 votes to pass. In fact, it needed a simple majority.